For the third consecutive year, I’ve read more than enough music-related books to fill up a blog post. So, hot on the heels of Books About Music 2016 (Johnny Marr, Robbie Robertson, Phil Collins, Bruce Springsteen), and Books About Music 2015 (Tom Petty, Elvis Costello, Chrissie Hynde, Kim Gordon), here’s Books About Music 2017 featuring David Bowie, The Strokes, Bob Marley, Joni Mitchell, and Loudon Wainwright III.
David Bowie: A Life
by Dylan Jones
My enthusiasm for the music of David Bowie is well-documented, and I love oral histories, which get at the truth by exploring various perspectives. Bowie’s career lends itself to this treatment, because he played characters and generally cultivated mystery. The author tries to get at the “real Bowie” by interviewing as many people as possible. Unfortunately, there’s no Iman and very little Duncan Jones, but we do hear from a nice mix of friends, lovers, musicians, photographers, journalists, etc.
What we learn is that Bowie is highly professional and the consummate gentleman, but also remarkably calculating: he turns on the charm when it serves his objective, and abandons people when he doesn’t need them anymore. Many people say things along the lines of: “He did that to people. I’m sure you’re aware that he did that to people. He just dropped them. And then moved on to somebody else, something else. And I understood that, it was fine. I was sorry about it because I really liked him.” He’s at once generous – someone posits that Iggy Pop would be a drooling junkie lying in a gutter if it wasn’t for Bowie – and ruthless, as evidenced by his dropping the Spiders from Mars after they devoted their early years to helping him achieve stardom.
Oral histories are the place to go if you’re in the market for anecdotes. For Live Aid, Bowie and Jagger wanted to sing a duet in which one of them performed on stage in London or Philadelphia while the other literally orbited Earth. It was going to be a reggae song, e.g. One Love, but there were no Space Shuttles available for the mission; they settled for that weird Dancin’ in the Streets video. When Bowie and his teenage son were going out to see a punk band in New York, and Duncan appeared in punk-rock attire including multi-colored hair, Bowie reportedly said something like: “I can’t be expected to go out with you looking like that.” The chickens had come home to roost! There’s also the hilarious story of Frank Zappa’s reaction when Bowie tried to poach guitarist Adrian Belew (“Fuck you, Captain Tom!”). I could go on and on…
On and on is where this book goes towards the end. I would rather read about the minutiae of, say, the Lodger sessions than a longish chapter about a museum exhibition of the artist’s costumes. But this reflects a common phenomenon in rock literature: you put up with the early and later years but it’s the run up to and peak of productivity/fame that drive the narrative.
Meet Me In the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011
by Lizzy Goodman
I lived in New York until mid-2001 but had relocated to San Francisco by the time The Strokes, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and a bunch of other bands ignited a rock-and-roll renaissance on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I wouldn’t have been part of it even if I’d been there, for the simple reason that I was never in the alternative rock scene. I went to see alternative rock bands, and performed in some of the same venues, but my friends were singer/songwriter types. I hate to admit it, but I wasn’t cool enough!
Still, I very much recognize the landmarks. For example, I attended shows and performed at Brownie’s, the Mercury Lounge, and the Bowery Ballroom. Also, it seems likely that I crossed paths with Karen O of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs at Odessa, my local diner when I lived on 8th St. between Avenues B and C. I only went to Don Hill’s – which hosted a weekly party called Tiswas that was one of the movement’s breeding grounds/epicenters – a couple of times, but it was constantly on my radar because a good friend bartended just a few doors down Spring St. at the Ear Inn, which shared employees and ownership.
The personal connections loom large, but the stories carry the day. The Strokes arc stands out: they started the whole thing with their cool clothes, rock star names, and undeniable first album. Everyone liked it! I was on tour with Suzanne Vega in Europe when Is This It entered her consciousness; I can picture her wearing headphones and jotting down notes as she overflowed with inspiration. But, according to the critics, the second album sounded too much like the first, and they tried to do too much on the third. I guess The Strokes were supposed to evolve like The Clash, who released two straightforward LPs before veering off into London Calling and Sandinista territory, but they didn’t and were replaced by bands like The Killers, who re-packaged the sound with more melodic flair.
One of the most entertaining chapters features Ryan Adams, who entered the Strokes orbit only to be cast out as a bad influence on guitarist Albert Hammond Jr., who had developed a heroin habit. I don’t know much about Adams on a personal level, but his reputation suggests he’s someone who could maybe play that role. On the other hand, it’s hard to believe that his departure would make a difference (it didn’t). When the book came out, Adams issued a series of virulent anti-Strokes tweets, one of which triangulates Hammond’s addiction and Julian Casablancas’s weight. It’s tasteless, of course, but gets the job done:
So Much Things To Say: The Oral History of Bob Marley
by Roger Steffens
As noted in Reggae Phase, I’m a big fan not only of this book’s subject, but also it’s author, the reggae expert who spread the gospel on Sundays from 1-5 on KCRW 89.9FM in Santa Monica. I tuned in religiously, and once – thanks to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s mother, who had connections – dropped by the station for a studio tour from Roger Steffens himself. After that, Garcetti and I stalked him at reggae shows throughout the southland and he was always friendly.
Among other things, Steffens is one of the foremost authorities on Bob Marley’s music and life. I have a handle on the Marley story, having read Catch a Fire by Timothy White and Bob Marley by Stephen Davis and seen the 2012 documentary, but I like hearing directly from the primary sources. What’s missing, I suppose, is all the dead people. Bunny Wailer’s in there, for example, but Peter Tosh died in 1987. Steffens mines old interviews for quotes, but it’s not the same.
I read this book right after A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, which won the Booker Prize in 2015. A Brief History revolves around the Marley legend, speculating about the anonymous, marginal types who would have played roles in events like the 1976 assassination attempt. Although I was fully prepared to enjoy this novel, the fact is that the endless, pointless bantering between characters drove me crazy. Do Jamaican assassins really joke around like they’re in an 80s sitcom or buddy movie? I finished the novel, but the verbatim language and true-to-life poignance of So Much Things To Say were a much-needed palate cleanser.
Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell
by David Yaffe
I’m not sure I would want to read an oral history of Joni Mitchell. I mean, I’d read it, and relish the insights of key players like David Crosby, Graham Nash, Larry Klein, Wayne Shorter, and Cary Raditz – the guy who lived with her in a cave on Crete and for whom she wrote Carey – but Joni’s part would probably be a turn off. That’s because – before her various illness, including creepy Morgellons Disease and a 2015 brain aneurysm – she had become embittered, talking shit about pretty much everyone, including Bob Dylan: “Bob is not authentic at all: He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception.”
Straightforward biography is the best formula for this particular artist, especially since the linear approach contextualizes the music, which comes in distinct periods. As everyone knows, she started as a folk duo with her first husband, Chuck Mitchell – who, BTW, seems determined to prove his worth vis à vis the genius ex-wife who left him in the dust – and continued in that vein until approximately For the Roses in 1972. Then, she embraces a jazzier sound with Court and Spark, makes some of her best albums with high-profile cats like Shorter and the unpredictable bass legend Jack Pastorius, and veers off into the experimental territory of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977) and Mingus (1979). That’s when she starts to lose her audience – not to mention the high end of her vocal range, thanks to years of chainsmoking – a trend that accelerates through the puzzling Geffen period (1982-1991). Have you heard Dancin’ Clown, the track from Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm, where Billy Idol yelps along?
Personally, I wasn’t as interested in Joni’s “origin story,” which is well-documented. (Felt abandoned by her parents who left her in a hospital for a year when she had polio, gave up a child for adoption, moved to California and fell in love with Graham Nash, made the classic confessional album Blue (1971), etc.) Rather, I was more interested in the mid-70s, when she released The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975) and Hejira (1976). The music speaks for itself, but I liked getting the backstories of some of the songs and learning how she connected and worked with different types of musicians. I was also interested in the Geffen years, if only to understand what she was thinking. As it turns out, she was thinking that she wasn’t appreciated by the music business, her fans, or the critics, who stopped dishing out praise. It’s difficult for me – a songwriter who is generally ignored by critics – to understand what she had to complain about, but I guess it’s all relative.
Liner Notes: On Parents & Children, Exes & Excess, Death & Decay, & A Few of My Other Favorite Things
by Loudon Wainwright III
Loudon Wainwright’s memoir is as straightforward as his songs. In Motel Blues, for example, he paints himself as lonely and desperate, begging a young woman to spend the night in his motel room when he’s on the road: “Come up to my motel room/save my life.” In Hitting You, he explores the short- and long-term consequences of hitting his daughter a little too hard. Of course, he’s also very funny, as anyone who’s heard The Acid Song will testify.
In the book, he admits things about himself – for example, he’s a serial adulterer – and examines those things in the context of his life story, often hilariously. I’m not sure what big idea he’s expounding upon when he offers this aside about his morning swimming regimen, but it cracked me up: “…I had to share a lane with a man…I don’t like, probably because he’s a guy my own age who wears little sawed-off flippers and does his laps in a rather pathetic fashion, alternating between a sloppy, slow backstroke and an even slower, lame, girly sidestroke.”
Positively Fourth Street by David Hajdu (re-read)
Dylan Goes Electric!: Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night that Split the Sixties by Elijah Wald
Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark by Tamara Saviano
T-Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit by Lloyd Sachs
Autobiography by Morrissey